The left and the “younger generation”

I find left discussions about the younger generation obnoxious for two main reasons. First, generations are diverse and lack unified or coherent interests. As such, you can’t ever really speak of a generation being harmed, only specific elements within a generation being harmed. The opposite is true as well: you can’t speak about a generation carrying out oppression or exploitation, only specifics elements within it doing so.

So when people talk about some sort of generational warfare or the younger generation being screwed by the older generation, I can only roll my eyes. Are the millions of older impoverished and low-income people screwing over the current generation of old money trust funders? Clearly not. It may be fair to remark that — in aggregate — the younger generation is having a worse go of it than previous younger generations. But we need to be more clear about who in the younger generation is having a worse go of it, and who in the older generation is responsible for that. Sweeping claims that talk about entire generations at once are almost entirely nonsense and practically useless.

The second problem with the left discourse on the “younger generation” is how the term is defined. In practice, “younger generation” seems to refer to “the current crop of traditional four-year college students.” Needless to say, that is hardly a comprehensive representation of the younger generation, and — even more bizarrely — only captures the most privileged slice of the younger generation. As part of this conflation of college students with the younger generation, we are treated to stories and commentaries about college graduate unemployment, college graduate wages, and student debt. That analysis is represented as capturing the plight of the younger generation, but it does not.

According to the EPI, 59.6 percent of young high school graduates go to college. However, only 75.5 percent of students graduate high school. Combining those numbers, only 45 percent of the younger generation enrolls in a college or university of any type, let alone the conventional four-year institutions people seem to be talking about. Despite the attention they receive, college students are a minority faction of the “younger generation.”

Additionally, college students are the best situated faction of the “younger generation.” The recent college graduate unemployment rate is 9.4 percent, which is admittedly higher than it ought to be (recession and all of that). But, the recent high school graduate unemployment rate is 31.1 percent, and a jaw-dropping 49.1 percent for recent Black high school graduates. The underemployment rate for recent college graduates is 19.1 percent, while the underemployment rate for recent high school graduates is 54 percent. Lastly, recent college graduates have, on average, a 78 percent higher hourly wage than recent high school graduates ($16.81 versus $9.45).

And this is just to speak of current economic indicators among the two groups. We could also talk about the lifetime wage premium for college graduates, which hovers around $1 million at the median. We could throw some cold water on the student debt hysteria by pointing out that the rich have the highest incidence of student debt and the highest student debt levels. We could even go so far as to point out that, among tier 1 universities, 74 percent of students come from the top quarter of households while only 3 percent come from the bottom quarter of households.

Given all of this, it seems ridiculous that we allow a relatively privileged minority of the “younger generation” to stand in as the representative population of the entire group. The usual left concerns about economic suffering and deprivation should lead left-leaning people to focus on non-students as they are the ones suffering the most. But non-students receive basically no attention, and that is a real shame.

Once upon a time, students seemed to understand their role as the elite and privileged in society. The successful left-wing student organizations — like SNCC — engaged by reaching out and providing support for the actually suffering. Now, we just get students theorizing their own oppression, as well as a press corps and blogosphere that seems to think college students are somehow the locus of exploitation in the younger generation.

This college student focus is not only descriptively off; it’s a waste of time practically. As they always have — including in the now-mourned 1960s generation — college students will eventually find themselves in the ranks of the yuppie classes. Some of the most hardcore ones may come out to marches for a bit longer, but most will locate themselves into the “creative class,” management of some sort, or other middle-to-high income jobs. Their collegiate interest in left-radical subculture will yield way to foodie subcultures, farmers markets, and the other things older, well-educated leftists do.

It is the non-student youth that will continue to work low-income jobs, fill the ranks of the impoverished, and compose the working class. Thus, any left effort focused on the youth and the younger generation should clearly be directed towards the non-student youth. That population has the most to gain from left-wing policies, and most of them will continue to be in a social position to gain from such policies for the remainder of their lives. Not so for the college students.

So, for me at least, the way the left deals with and defines the “younger generation” totally baffles the mind. It’s not well-grounded theoretically, empirically, or practically, and should be drastically overhauled.